Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Recovering from Bad Religion: Rollins Summary 1

I recently started a new community discussion group, “Recovering from Bad Religion.” Here’s the Facebook event description:

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Have you experienced toxic or abusive religion? Many in America grow-up in churches that preach “fire and brimstone.” They tell us that a wrathful God watches our every move, and if we fail to live according to a strict moral code then God will punish us with eternal torment. The church derives this moral code, along with a list of required doctrines, from a literal reading of the Bible that is often anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-gay. This leaves many feeling like they must disavow everything they learned in college to be a Christian. Many cannot stomach this authoritarianism, so they leave the church and become agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” However, there is a different way of being Christian. This discussion group will provide a safe space to explore more loving and thoughtful alternatives.

 

After our meet and greet on 1/17, we held our first discussion this past Tuesday on the Introduction and Chapter One of The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins. In order to help those in the discussion group, I will be posting chapter summaries. By doing this on my blog, I hope to extend the conversation beyond Cocoa Beach. Feel free to jump in with comments, but please keep them thoughtful, polite, and kind. If you feel a compulsive need to correct perceived heresy or save the souls of participants with whom you don’t agree, this is probably not the right place for you. Comments that are not respectful, kind, and genuinely open to dialogue will be deleted.

Without further adieu, here is the first summary.

The Thesis of the Book

The main argument in The Idolatry of God is that most mainstream Christianity has turned God into an idol. Instead of admitting the truth of our human condition—that life is difficult and that satisfaction and certainty will always elude us—we turn God into a product that promises to satisfy all our longing, render us complete, remove our suffering, and give us the answers to all life’s problems. Like all idolatry, this leads to slavery and misery. In contrast, if we can get honest about what it means to be a human being in this world and let go of idols that promise certainty and satisfaction, then we can develop an authentic faith that empowers us to “joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence.” Only then, can we enter the fullness of life and be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. In other words, we don’t seek salvation from uncertainty and satisfaction, we find it amid these things.

Introduction: The Apocalypse Isn’t Coming, It Has Already Arrived

In the Introduction, Rollins argues that mainstream Christianity has become another false (idolatrous) promise: if you accept Jesus as your personal savior then he will remove all doubt and replace it with certainty, and he will remove all brokenness and replace it with wholeness. Salvation is construed as an escape from uncertainty and dissatisfaction and the promise to fulfill our deepest longings. While this logic is most clearly seen in the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which overtly promises believers health, wealth, and worldly success, Rollins argues that it’s much more widespread, but in subtler forms.

According to Rollins, this is a false form of religion, what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses,” that functions as a carrot on a stick (a promise perpetually deferred) and drives us through life without ever really changing anything. In contrast, he asks, what if salvation is not about fulfilling the desires that we take for granted, but changing what we desire and how we desire? Instead of fulfilling our hopes and dreams, what if Jesus is trying to change what we hope for and what we dream about? Rollins says:

For what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he isn’t the solution? What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question . . . . what is Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them? (4)

So instead of saving us from uncertainty and dissatisfaction, maybe we are saved within our ongoing experience of these things. In a way reminiscent of Paul Tillich, Rollins envisions salvation as the cultivation of a courageous faith capable of confronting, embracing, and saying ‘amen’ to uncertainty and dissatisfaction (5). Instead of finding salvation by escaping our humanity, we find salvation amid our humanity.

Chapter 1: The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered

The main purpose of this chapter is to describe “a lack” (emptiness, discontent, unfulfilled longing, sense of loss or separation) at the heart of human existence, which originates in the process of coming to self-awareness. It also describes the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help fill this void.

We tend to think that our discontent is the result of something that we don’t currently have, but if we had “it” then the void would be filled and we would finally be happy. The “it” could be just about anything: money, possessions, power, fame, admiration, a better job, a thinner body, a whiter smile, a more passionate sex life, etc.

The problem, however, is that we know people who have what we think we need to be happy, and they still experience the lack. Even more troubling, when we actually get what we hope will remove our discontent, we soon discover that it’s still there! This leads us to imagine that while our newest acquisition didn’t fill the void, there is still something else just beyond our grasp that will. More grasping results in more disappointment, which results in more grasping. A self-perpetuating vicious cycle ensues that renders even the most well-meaning person a slave. As we feed our appetite for satisfaction, it gets stronger and more destructive. (Think of the dynamics of addiction.)

At the end of the day, “this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive . . .” to acquire and consume more objects and experiences that we think will fix us. But it’s like playing a rigged casino game—it never really works, and the more we try to make it work the more attached, enslaved, and miserable we become.

Rollins goes on to make the radical claim that almost the entire existing church has been co-opted and corrupted by the same logic: (1) You are separated from God by sin. (2) This is the cause of a deep sense of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, (3) If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and lead a life of spiritual discipline, then God will permanently remove the void, utterly satisfy your deepest desires, and give you absolute certainty.

According to Rollins, this is how God is transformed into another product to be sold that promises to take away all your pain and make you whole. This is how God is turned into an idol and sold in a flourishing Christian industry of books, worship music, conferences, church services, etc. What we desire stays the same, how we desire stays the same, the promise of satisfaction and certainty stays the same, we just switch-out the terms. So instead of trusting more money, a better looking spouse, or a more attractive body to remove the void and give us a sense of total satisfaction, preachers hold out the same promise with more faithful church attendance, increased tithing, and a more disciplined devotional life (which, of course, requires the newest book or latest worship album).

In contrast, what is needed is not another recapitulation of the same old story, which reinforces a false (idolatrous) narrative and keeps us stuck in self-destructive consumption. Rather, we need a genuine alternative to this way of seeing the world, a more authentic way of developing a life of meaning and value. We need a radically different way of understanding Christianity that will enable us to be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. As we will see, this alternative vision can be found in the New Testament, if we have eyes to see.

 

Don’t Scare the Hell Out of People, Love the Hell Out of Them

Many Christians are concerned about loved one’s who don’t embrace their faith (or particular brand of Christianity). Some are fearful that if their spouse, child, or friend doesn’t “get saved” that they might suffer an untimely death and go to hell. Others are fearful that their loved ones are suffering unnecessary pain and missing the peace and joy that come from following Jesus. In this message, I invite you to consider how being overly concerned with your loved one going to hell could be grounded in bad theology that myopically focuses on the judgment and wrath of God. I also suggests that this focus on fear and judgment can actually lead to counter-productive ways of sharing our faith that actually push people away and make it less likely for them to become a follower of Jesus. In contrast, if we focus on helping people find real healing, forgiveness, love, and joy in the here and now, then this will lead us to share our faith in ways that actually work. The goal is not scare the hell out of people with threats of divine punishment (which never leads to lasting transformation), but to love the hell out of people by being the heart, hands, feet and voice of the most compassionate man to walk the face of the earth–Jesus Christ. If you really want to help someone receive the good news of the gospel, then check out this message!

Don’t Waste Good Wine: Remaining Flexible in Times of Change

We are living in a time of rapid change and cultural upheaval. Most people don’t like change because it requires us to grieve losses, solve novel problems, and acquire new skills. Some even retreat into religious fundamentalism and a literalistic reading of the Bible to insulate themselves from the challenges that come in the wake of change. In retrospect, we can clearly see that this approach has always done more harm than good to the Christian community and the world it claims to serve. For example, fearful “change avoidance” has compelled Christians to use the Bible to attack modern science, defend slavery and segregation, and deny women equal rights. This impulse is grounded in the idea that unity is a divinely ordained homogeneity that must be defend against any intrusion of difference. Difference is seen as the source of division, as a dangerous enemy to be eradicated. But the New Testament casts a vision of unity that is grounded in and strengthen by diversity. This is a counterintuitive idea for many, and Jesus knew that we would never be able to grasp it unless we had flexible hearts and minds. I believe that this is why Jesus told the parable of the wine skins (Luke 5:36-39). In this message, I exegete this parable to suggest two things: (1) we need fresh interpretations scripture that will help Christians solve complex problems in their contemporary context, and (2) Christians need pliable hearts and minds to receiving and assimilate these new interpretations. If this message blesses you then please share it with others.

For those who would like to learn more about interpreting the Bible in light of some of the most important insights in contemporary biblical scholarship and Christian theology, I highly recommend a book written by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.